Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest

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April 29, 2018

Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest

Passage: Revelation 14:13; 21:1–6

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And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,
for they rest from their labors, and their works do follow them.’ —Revelation 14:13


A requiem mass is probably the most serious music in the western repertoire.  Or at least that’s the way Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi conceived of the requiem in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Their requiem masses are dark, brooding, and solemn: grave music, grave in both senses of the term; grave music for the lip of the grave.

Gabriel Fauré took his music in a different direction. When Mr. Fauré composed his Requiem in 1888, probably in honor of his own father who had recently died, he traded bombast and solemnity for simplicity and lucidity. Mr. Fauré seems to have understood that a requiem is not so much a lament for the dead as a celebration of Christ’s Easter victory.

The French composer Gabriel Fauré was born in 1845 and died in 1924 at the age of 79. He was a church organist for most of his musical career—the Susan Klotzbach of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paris.

He was a student of Saint Saëns, a teacher of Ravel, and played dueling pipe organs in Paris now and then with Charles Marie Widor.

Maestro Fauré’s bouyant, sanguine, Requiem reflects the composer’s sunny disposition.  He was, they say, light-hearted and easy-going.  For a while he attempted to function as the music critic for the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, but he found himself simply incapable of saying anything in the least bit critical, a fatal flaw for a critic, so he quit.   If you can’t be as mean and sardonic as Anthony Tomassini or Ben Brantley in The Times, you may as well hang it up, right?  So he did.

With his thick black hair, trademark mustache, and olive complexion, he was, says one of his biographers—and I quote—“a magnet for the ladies.”

Lady Magnet or not, he still hadn’t married by the time he was 40, so a well-known Paris matchmaker set him up with three promising young women, all from the world of art and music.

When he couldn’t decide which of them to marry, he threw their names into a hat and drew out the name of Marie Fremiet.  It didn’t take Monsieur Fauré long to discover that this might not be the most sensible way to choose your lifelong love, but his unhappy marriage seems not to have tarnished his bright disposition.  He sought solace in other quarters, if you know what I mean.

As I said, Monsieur Fauré was a church organist for much of his career, most of it at the Madeleine Church in Paris.  It was quite a tony congregation.  One of Fauré’s biographers said that the Madeleine was not so much a church as a place for the rich and famous to show off.  Apparently the best fashion show in Paris occurred every week after mass as the ladies left the sanctuary for the boulevards of Paris. Good thing we don’t have churches like that in America.  That was where Fauré’s Requiem was presented for the first time in January of 1888 at the funeral of a prominent architect.

Mr. Fauré was always warring with the senior minister at the church where he worked, and this requiem was no exception.   After the service, the priest approached him and said, “What was that piece of music you just played?”  Mr. Fauré replied, “It was an original piece of my own composition.”  And the priest said, “We don’t need such novelties.  Our repertoire is rich enough.” Sometimes you just can’t win.

Maybe the senior pastor noted that Mr. Fauré had muted the frightening aspect of judgement so prominent in Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi.  Perhaps he didn’t think this Requiem would literally scare the hell out of the congregation, which was what a requiem was supposed to do.

Perhaps the priest noted that Maestro Fauré kept slipping in that refrain requiem aeternam (“eternal rest”) all over the place at spots where it didn’t belong, just to remind us that death wasn’t so fearful after all.

Maybe the senior pastor noticed that Mr. Fauré added two movements to his Requiem that really don’t belong there—the serene Pie Jesu—“Sweet Jesus, give them rest, give them rest eternal”—and then, at the end, the haunting In Paradisum, a text which was normally sung not at the memorial mass itself but as the body was being carried out to the cemetery:  “May the angels lead thee to Paradise, at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem.”

Perhaps Maestro Fauré inherited his tranquil attitude toward death from St. John of the Apocalypse: “God will wipe away every tear from their eye, and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Maestro Fauré said: “That’s how I see death, as a joyful deliverance, an aspiration toward happiness beyond the grave. My Requiem is as gentle as I am myself.”

I never noticed it till this week while I was thinking about the In Paradisum movement, but when Prince Hamlet dies in Shakespeare’s play, it is Hamlet’s friend Horatio who gives the clipped, interrupted eulogy: “Now cracks a noble heart.  Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Horatio is invoking the ancient words of the Catholic burial mass: “May the angels lead thee to paradise, at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem.”

This morning as they sing this Requiem, our choir is thinking of their friend and fellow chorister, Midge Sterrett, who died the other day after long, faithful years in this choir:  “Good night sweet princess, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”